In a sign of how deeply mired the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is, even news of a planned visit to the region this week by President Clinton did little to counter dimming prospects for progress.
Clinton is due to stop in Egypt on Tuesday at the end of his trip to Africa. He will meet with Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who has met over the past week with Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss proposals to try to break the deadlock between the sides.
The proposals address some of the key disputed issues, including sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Though Israel’s acting foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, described his conversation last week with Mubarak as “very, very interesting,” Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Friday rejected one of the Egyptian leader’s reported proposals to allow for Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount.
Barak was quoted as saying in a meeting with the visiting Norwegian foreign minister that “no Israeli prime minister” would ever accept such an arrangement.
In the meantime, the Israeli leader continued to blame the impasse in the process on Palestinian inflexibility. On Sunday, Barak told the Cabinet that the “ball is in Yasser Arafat’s court.”
The leaders face a fast-approaching Sept. 13 deadline, when the Palestinians have said they will declare a state, with or without an agreement. Each side is aware of the possible negative consequences such a move would elicit, and despite the tough rhetoric being heard, both sides are reluctant to formalize failure of the process.
Following a globe-trotting trip that failed to drum up desired support for a unilateral declaration, Arafat signaled the Palestinian leadership may consider a “postponement” of such a declaration.
Barak, meanwhile, is at the forefront of a diplomatic flurry. Regional Development Minister Shimon Peres traveled to India last week to raise support for the peace process, while Ben Ami was in Alexandria for talks with the Egyptian leadership.
At the same time, Barak faces increasingly formidable domestic opposition. As Barak struggles through a Knesset recess to rebuild a coalition with calls for a “secular revolution,” a right-wing legislator said Sunday he had gathered the signatures of 62 Knesset member who would back legislation to prevent the prime minister of a minority government from signing any international treaties.
Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian security forces have been continuing to cooperate in thwarting possible terrorist activity by militants from fundamentalist Muslim groups opposed to the peace process.
In a serious setback, three Israeli soldiers were killed and another moderately wounded during an operation in a village north of the West Bank town of Nablus on Sunday to capture a wanted Hamas fugitive.
Both Barak and the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, indicated that the Israeli casualties could have been the result of “friendly fire.” In the operation, which took place in an area under Israeli security control, the militant, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud, was lightly wounded in the hand. He fled to the Palestinian autonomous area, where he was apprehended by Palestinian security forces.
Barak said Israel may consider filing an extradition request for Abu Hanoud, who was responsible for two suicide bombings in Jerusalem three years ago. Barak said the operation saved the lives of dozens of Israelis who could have been endangered by terrorist activity. At the same time, he called the Duvduvan undercover unit one of the defense force’s “most outstanding,” and expressed deep regret over the mishap.
The Israeli army chief said a thorough investigation would be undertaken. He told a news conference it was possible that the casualties were linked to a secondary force in the field, and could have been caused by improper positioning, improper identification or inaccurate fire.
The incident came a few days after an Israeli undercover unit operating in a village north of Ramallah shot and killed a 73-year-old Palestinian man who had opened fire on them with a pistol, apparently mistaking the troops for thieves.